Saturday, June 20, 2015

Torn between two loves

A review of Michael Oren's new book

A plate of cheese and crackers served to hungry Israeli officials at the White House is one of the many images that lingered after I read Michael Oren’s riveting new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” The book is an insider account of Oren’s tenure as the Israeli ambassador to the United States during an especially stormy time from 2009 to 2013. Those storms are sure to get most of the attention, but it would be a mistake to overlook the first part of the book, a condensed autobiography that plants the seeds for a crucial theme that hovers above the entire book.
That theme is dual loyalty.

In modern parlance, “dual loyalty” is usually used as a pejorative, an accusation that an American Jew may feel more loyalty to Israel than to the United States.

The astonishing thing about Oren’s book is that he has, to a certain extent, redeemed the term. The “dual loyalty” the reader feels in “Ally” is not tinged by the poison of betrayal. Rather, it is imbued with a sense of generosity, a sense that an American with an Israeli passport can genuinely love both countries deeply, even when those countries quarrel. 

Loyalty is a charged term, because it implies one must choose, and Oren certainly “chooses” Israel the minute he gives up his U.S. passport, as is required by law to become a foreign envoy. But it is a wrenching moment for him, as he believes in that U.S. passport — “in the history it symbolized, the values it proclaimed.”

Oren is aware of the nation’s darker legacies, but that does not make him less sentimental about America: “My eyes still misted during the national anthem, brightened at the sight of Manhattan’s skyline, and marveled at the Rockies from thirty-five thousand feet.”

His love for America is filled with gratitude. “From the time that all four of my grandparents arrived on Ellis Island, through the Great Depression, in which they raised my parents, and the farm-bound community in which I grew up, America held out the chance to excel. True, prejudice was prevalent, but so, too, was our ability to fight it. Unreservedly, I referred to Americans as ‘we.’ ”

Oren’s gratitude is deepened by his own personal struggles: “Overweight and so pigeon-toed that I had to wear an excruciating leg brace at night, I was hopeless at sports. And severe learning disabilities consigned me to the ‘dumb’ classes at school, where I failed to grasp elementary math and learn to write legibly.”

Driven to succeed, Oren fought to overcome these obstacles, forging himself into an athlete, teaching himself grammar and spelling, learning to write poetry and eventually attending Ivy League schools. “All the hallmarks of an American success became mine,” he acknowledges, “thanks in part to uniquely American opportunities.”

His love for Israel sprouted as his success in America grew. As early as age 12, he had a keen sense of history, “an awareness that I was not just a lone Jew living in late 1960s America, but part of a global Jewish collective stretching back millennia.”

If America made him strong, the thought of Israel made him stronger. When he made aliyah in 1979, Oren drew upon the inner fortitude he had developed in America to overcome the enormous physical challenge of becoming a paratrooper in the Israeli military.

There was no contradiction between his two loves. In meetings of the Zionist youth movement, he often heard the famous words of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice: “Every American Jew who supported Zionism was a better American for doing so.”

The United States and Israel, Oren came to appreciate, “were both democracies, both freedom-loving, and similarly determined to defend their independence. One could be — in fact, should be — a Zionist as well as a patriotic American, because the two countries stood for identical ideals.”

As an author, professor and historian living in Israel, Oren could indulge in the idealized marriage of Zionism and America that so nourished his childhood. The relationship between the two countries was so organic that he never felt he had to choose — choosing one meant choosing both.

That luxury was gone when he became ambassador.

This is the real drama of Oren’s book: watching him navigate the innumerable conflicts between the country he loves and represents and the country he loves but cannot represent. At the outset, Oren acknowledges that “the two countries had changed markedly and were in danger of drifting apart,” but he believed he could “help prevent that by representing Jerusalem to Washington as well as Israel to the United States.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone better prepared for the task.

From the minute he put on his “armor,” the crises came and never let up, from the unyielding Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. Inevitably, the character that looms largest in the whole drama is President Barack Obama.

The book gives us a blow-by-blow of a turbulent relationship between friends, with Oren at the heart of the drama. A big part of the book’s appeal is in its narrative texture — the late-night phone calls, the emergency meetings, the interrupted family trips, the tense summons at the State Department or White House, the strategy sessions at the embassy, and so on. It is Oren's sharp storytelling mixed with his candid and insightful commentary that makes the book riveting.

While always respectful when speaking about Obama, Oren is also too honest and too knowledgeable to let the president off the hook whenever he thinks he is mistaken, which is often. The tension builds when these mistakes are seen as hurting the country Oren is sworn to protect. Oren is relentless and crafty in making Israel’s case, but he’s up against an indomitable force: The most powerful man in the world has decided to put distance, or “daylight,” between America and Israel.

Oren’s problem is not with America, but with Obama — and he proceeds to show us how Obama’s distancing policy has come to hurt Israel.

Oren recounts, for example, the infamous “daylight meeting” with Jewish leaders at the White House, when Obama disagreed with Malcolm Hoenlein’s contention that “Israelis took risks only when they were convinced that the United States stood with them.” 

Oren explains how Obama “recalled the eight years when Bush backed Israel unequivocally but never produced peace,” and then he delivers the president’s knockout punch: “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.”

This view has always appeared reasonable to a large segment of American Jews, especially those who favor Obama and disliked Bush. But Oren punches back.

First, he corrects Obama’s assertion that Israel just sits on the sidelines when there’s no daylight: “Bush’s support for Israel had, in fact, emboldened [Ehud] Olmert to propose establishing a Palestinian state — an offer ignored by Mahmoud Abbas.”

Then, he delivers a knockout punch of his own. He’s grateful for Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security, but in the Middle East, Oren writes, security is largely a product of impressions. Seen in that context, Obama’s approach of “no daylight on security but daylight on diplomacy” leaves Israel vulnerable and reduces its power of deterrence. “A friend who stands by his friends on some issues but not others is, in Middle Eastern eyes, not really a friend. In a region famous for its unforgiving sun, any daylight is searing.”

The daylight was certainly blinding on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Emboldened by his soaring popularity at the beginning of his first term, Obama laid down the law and set up conditions to peace talks that even the Palestinians had never insisted upon: a complete freeze of all Jewish construction in the West Bank, including even Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and all natural growth, something no Israeli leader could accept.

That draconian demand essentially paralyzed the peace process and set the Obama-Netanyahu relationship on a collision course from which it never recovered. Oh, sure, there were the occasional charm offensives and make-up sessions, but they were mostly a front. As Oren’s narrative makes clear, Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were fundamentally at odds over how to approach the Palestinian conflict.

This section is perhaps the least interesting in the book, if for no other reason than the politics feel like Groundhog Day and are entirely predictable. The minute Obama decided to pressure only Israel, the die was cast. Abbas and his cohorts could continue naming stadiums after terrorists, cleaning Israel’s clock in international forums, and sitting back and enjoying the show of two historic allies going at it.

Things got so tenuous that when Abbas called Obama’s bluff and sought a Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, Obama, desperate not to exercise his veto power, offered to endorse the Palestinian position on the 1967 lines, altering more than 40 years of American policy. The book’s revelation of this sneaky maneuver is getting a lot of media attention, but everyone seems to be missing an essential fact: Abbas still said no.

A vexing low point in the ongoing saga with Obama is the night Israeli officials were left alone and hungry at the White House while Obama and Netanyahu were off in a private meeting. No food was served until someone asked, and then a White House employee brought a plate of cheese and crackers, which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak proceeded to devour.

I’m not quite sure why something so small and silly made an impression on me – maybe there's something about Jews and food – but Oren brought it up and it stuck.

In any event, all the battling and squabbling between Obama and Netanyahu were small potatoes compared to their division on the existential issue of Iran's nuclear program. “Rarely in modern history have nations faced genuine existential threats,” Oren writes, quoting a piece he wrote in Commentary. “Israel uniquely confronted many potential cataclysms on a daily basis. Three of them, alone, were posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

First, he writes, there is Iran’s attempt to produce a bomb that it could place atop one of the many missiles it already possesses and which could hit any city in Israel. Second, there is Iran’s status as the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism — meaning that if Iran got the bomb, so would the terrorists. And, last, once Iran acquired nuclear capabilities, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would obtain them as well, locking Israel into a fatally unstable neighborhood.

Oren is at his best dissecting the disagreement over Iran, candidly cutting through the public front extolling the common U.S. and Israeli goals of preventing a nuclear Iran. “Behind this outward confluence of policies,” he writes, “yawned several chasms.”

The first chasm is structural: “America, a very large and supremely armed country located far from the Middle East and not threatened by national annihilation by Iran, could afford to take chances on the nuclear issue that tiny and less-powerful Israel, situated in Iran’s backyard and slated by its rulers for destruction, could not.”

The second is conceptual: “While Netanyahu doubted that Iran would concede its nuclear program without first enduring crippling sanctions and confronting a serious military threat, Obama remained committed to the principle of engagement, in the hope that Iran could one day ‘rejoin the community of nations.’ ”

But nothing separated Washington and Jerusalem more than the possibility of military action. In one of the juicier reveals in the book, Oren quotes Barak telling his American counterparts: “One night of strategic bombing will restore all your lost prestige in the Middle East. The Iranian nightmare is a full-blown American attack.” The American response was silence.

If the Palestinian issue had a farcical and cynical sheen, the Iranian issue had a tragic one that tested Oren unlike any other: “It wedged me between a prime minister who believed it his historic duty to defend Israel against an imminent mortal threat and a president who saw that same danger as less lethal, less pressing, and still addressable through diplomacy.”

Oren diligently chronicles the tortured, interminable dance between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iranian issue, one that still awaits a final act. But there is also a fascinating dance between Oren and his boss, Netanyahu, flowing through the book. 

“Ever mindful of the opportunity he gave me to achieve a lifelong dream,” Oren writes, “I liked Netanyahu, but I never became his friend. Rendered suspicious by years of political treacheries, he appeared not to cultivate or even need friendships. … And yet, I still empathized with his loneliness, a leader of a country that had little respect for rank and often less for those who wore it … [who] presided over unremitting crises, domestic and foreign, that would break most normal men.”

Oren says he gave his boss loyalty and honesty, including “advice he did not always relish hearing.” Oren’s approach, which was more conciliatory, especially toward Washington, “ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality — part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory.”

In one of the most telling passages of the book, Oren writes about a “most difficult” truth he could never bring himself to tell his boss: “He had much in common with Obama. Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory and that they were the smartest men in the room. Both were loners, adverse to hasty decision making and susceptible to a strong woman’s advice. And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.”

It’s a mark of Oren’s affinity for both countries that he’s able to see the similarities in the quarreling leaders. One way of looking at Oren’s journey across the American-Israeli divide is that he did all he could to stop two great allies from drifting apart. “Preserving the alliance remained my paramount priority,” he writes.

Oren is sharply critical of some Jewish journalists in America, many of whom he feels hold Israel to a double standard and overdose on criticism of the Jewish state. Maybe that’s why  he published regularly during his tenure, including an unapologetic article in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “The Ultimate Ally.”

This is it how it opens:

“What is the definition of an American ally? On an ideological level, an ally is a country that shares America’s values, reflects its founding spirit, and resonates with its people’s beliefs. Tactically, an ally stands with the United States through multiple conflicts and promotes its global vision. From its location at one strategic crossroads, an ally enhances American intelligence and defense capabilities, and provides ports and training for U.S. forces. Its army is formidable and unequivocally loyal to its democratic government. An ally helps secure America’s borders and assists in saving American lives on and off the battlefield. And an ally stimulates the U.S. economy through trade, technological innovation, and job creation.

“Few countries fit this description, but Israel is certainly one of them.”

This may help to explain how Oren was able to navigate the sharp conflicts between the two countries he so loves — he didn’t see the relationship as a one-way street. He saw America’s value to Israel, yes, but he also saw Israel’s value to America.

As a historian, too, Oren understands that leaders come and go; that no leader, however powerful, is bigger than a country or its ideals.  Leaders may damage relationships and interests, but they don’t damage values. Oren was deeply loyal to his beloved Israel, but he was also deeply loyal to the enduring values of his beloved America. 

That is how he gave dual loyalty a good name.

Michael Oren’s “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” will be released by Random House on June 23. David Suissa will interview Oren onstage at the Museum of Tolerance on July 1 at 7 p.m. Free. Oren will also speak at the Richard Nixon Foundation in Yorba Linda on July 2 at 7 p.m.